The Gophers wrestling team used performances from some surprise NCAA qualifiers to boost itself to a fifth-place finish at llast weekend’s Big Ten championships.
The No. 13 Gophers (7-5, 5-4 Big Ten) entered the weekend as the seventh-ranked Big Ten team in the nation according to Intermat, but thanks to nine NCAA qualifiers, were able to jump Rutgers and Illinois for the fifth spot.
“I thought we wrestled a really good tournament overall,” said head coach Brandon Eggum. “The goal for the individuals is to win a Big Ten title no doubt about it, but in general, I think guys did a good job.”
Perhaps the most thrilling of Minnesota’s place-winning matches came in its most inconspicuous — the ninth place bout at 174 pounds.
With the Big Ten receiving nine NCAA qualifying spots at that weight, the winner between the Gophers’ Chris Pfarr and Rutgers’ Jordan Pagano would grab the last spot in St. Louis.
In a tight three periods, each wrestler put just two points on the board to send the match to a sudden-victory overtime session.
Neither wrestler was able to score, however, which meant 30-second tiebreakers would be used to decide the match.
After holding Pagano under control in the first tiebreak period, Pfarr was able to earn an escape in the second for a 3-2 decision and the final spot in the NCAA Championships.
“Everyone was ecstatic for Chris,” Eggum said. “[He’s] an individual who’s really developed himself in college from where he was in high school…he wrestled with a lot of heart.”
The Gophers wrestler with perhaps the highest hopes for the weekend was senior Brett Pfarr at 197 pounds.
Pfarr, ranked second in the nation in his weight class — then first in the Big Ten — was looking for the first conference title of his illustrious career, and his chances looked promising heading into Sunday when he wrestled in the title match.
His opponent — Ohio State’s No. 3 Kollin Moore — was one Pfarr had already beaten twice this season, and his experience was seen as a big advantage over the Buckeyes rookie.
The tide turned early, however, when Moore came inches from pinning Pfarr in the first period, instead earning six points from the move.
Pfarr could never recover the deficit, and though he came as close as four points, he dropped the match 15-11.
“I know Brett was disappointed,” said. Eggum. “But in the end, I don’t think it changes a lot for what Brett is trying to accomplish — the goal still is to win a national title.”
Another Gophers wrestler with high hopes was heavyweight Michael Kroells, who is ranked eighth in the nation in his weight class.
The redshirt senior is a two-time All-American, and looked to build off a third place finish last year.
After reaching the championship semifinals, Kroells ran into the dominant force that is Ohio State’s No. 1 Kyle Snyder.
Snyder, a 2016 Olympic gold medalist, took a 14-7 decision, to send Kroells to the semifinals of the consolation bracket.
After beating Nebraska’s Collin Jensen, Kroells took on Nick Nevills of Penn State for third place.
Nevills scored an early takedown and never let Kroells gain much traction, and he held on for a 2-0 decision.
Kroells now looks toward to the NCAAs for redemption — a tournament he is quite familiar with.
“[My experience] is such an advantage,” Kroells said. “I know what to expect…I’m as prepared as I can be for being in that tournament.”
For the team as a whole, nine NCAA qualifiers represents a healthy rebound from the turmoil of last season. The Gophers now will try to build on their Big Ten season on the national stage.
“We had some good moments and we had some tough moments,” said redshirt junior Jake Short. “For NCAAs you have to find a way to make sure [they’re] all good moments.”